September 12, 2007

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Maxim Krans) - When Russia was recognized as the de facto successor to the U.S.S.R. it inherited not only its property, nuclear arsenal and a huge foreign debt, but also the heavy, often unbearable, burden of historic responsibility for the policies and actions of former regimes.

erves as a timely reminder of this. It is devoted to the Katyn tragedy -- a sensitive issue, which has marred Russian-A new feature film from the outstanding film director Andrzej Wajda, which will be released in the next few days, sPolish relations for years. Wajda, who lost his father in the Katyn forest, has said more than once that he does not wish his film to be political. But films have a habit of taking on a life of their own, regardless of their director's wishes, and once it is released it may well be seized on by others as a political weapon.
The facts of the matter seemed to have been finally established in 1990, when TASS issued its first statement on the Katyn tragedy. It admitted that the officers imprisoned by the Red Army during partition of Poland had been killed by the NKVD. Two years later, Boris Yeltsin handed Polish President Lech Walesa materials from a secret folder, which successive Communist Party general secretaries had kept under lock and key. This file included an excerpt from protocol #13 of the Central Committee Politburo session of March 5, 1940, which passed a death sentence on Polish officers, policemen, government officials, landlords, factory owners and other "counterrevolutionary elements" who were kept in forced labor camps (14,700) and prisons in western Ukraine and Byelorussia (11,000).

The same protocol ordered a review of cases, in absentia and without filing charges. As a result POWs from the Kozel camp were shot in the Katyn forest near Smolensk, while those detained in Starobelsk and Ostashkov were taken to local execution sites. In a secret memo to Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, KGB chief Alexander Shelepin reported that about 22,000 Poles had been killed. More than 200,000 relatives of POWs, and almost as many Poles from the "Soviet-liberated" territories were deported to exile in Kazakhstan, Siberia and the North.
These are hard facts. After 50 years of secrecy and cover-up, the Soviet and Russian presidents admitted the Stalinist regime's responsibility for this heinous crime. Memorials in honor of Polish POWs rose at their burial sites. Repeating Willy Brandt's iconic act of contrition, Boris Yeltsin knelt before the monument to the Katyn officers at a military cemetery in Warsaw.

But the question of repentance has refused to be laid to rest. On the eve of Vladimir Putin's visit to Poland in 2002, President Aleksander Kwasniewski demanded official apologies from his Russian counterpart. The current Polish leader Lech Kaczynski still insists on them.

Although Putin has apologized for the past in Budapest and Prague, he is unlikely to do so in Poland. During that visit to Poland in 2002, he refused to draw comparisons between Nazi and Stalinist crimes, instead suggesting that it might be possible to extend the Russian law on the rehabilitation of victims of Stalinism to the Polish citizens involved. But when campaigners from Memorial, a Moscow based human rights group, appealed to a Moscow court for the relatives to be granted the status of victims of political repression, the answer was a categorical "no".

Moreover, in defiance of the previous Russian position, the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office halted the inquiry into the Katyn case, citing the absence of genocide and the death of the guilty officials. Most of the documents of the 14 year-long investigation were classified.
Prominent Polish publicist Jerzy Urban thinks this decision was a way of avoiding paying compensation to the victim's families. He wrote in the Nie weekly: "If Poland created a precedent with compensation, the whole family of Soviet peoples plus peace-loving nations of the socialist camp would rush to Russia with an outstretched hand." Maybe so - at any rate Prosecutor General Nikolai Turbin hinted at this possibility in his letter to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.

If Poles were insulted and indignant at the decision to close the investigation, in Russia it inspired Stalinists and nationalists. With renewed zeal they started reiterating the old Soviet version that the Nazis were responsible for the massacre, even though it had already been refuted by documented evidence. Governor Aman Tuleyev demanded that Warsaw "repent in turn" for the Red Army soldiers who perished in camps during the Soviet-Polish war of 1919-1921.

But an unbiased look at the current flurry of recriminations reveals a more serious split than different versions of history. It is not rooted in the distant past, which abounds in mutual grievances, but in the early 1990s. Euphoric with sudden freedom, both nations were eager to rid themselves of the fetters of communism as soon as possible. But in the hurry to exorcise the recent past, they also lost the valuable political, economic, and, last but not the least, human contacts, which had existed between our nations since ancient times.
Over the following years we drifted so far apart that by the time we entered the new millennium our relations were zero, or even negative. Today, they resemble a fencing tournament, in which each side responds to (what is sees as) a sensitive attack with its own phrase d'arms: a meat ban rebounds in the form of a veto on a strategic EU agreement; a Baltic gas pipeline is followed by a welcome to U.S. missiles, and so on.

On both sides ambitions and injured pride are overriding pragmatism. This is not only sad - it is also bad. Compromise is essential for neighbors in Europe.

"Katyn. Prisoners of Undeclared War," is the title of a collection of documents compiled by Russian and Polish historians and archivists. In today's uneasy bilateral context, this title acquires a symbolic significance. Having introduced old historical arguments to current politics, the leaders of our countries have fallen prisoner to long-discredited myths and stereotypes, themselves the restless survivors of the era of this undeclared war.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.